Table Of Contents
Chapter #1 - Unraveling Fate
The words flashed bright red on a television screen across the room from where I stood, and I caught a glimpse of a familiar young man in his late teens. His black hair was short and messy, and his gray-blue eyes were sharp and knowledgeable. Even without the subheading to the news story, I recognized the boy immediately. He was a famous SciTech student at the Moira League, well-known for his contributions in the field of chemistry and for developing a chemical weapon to suppress dangerous adversaries for the Praetorian army. But today, the current news headline was showing a different side of this boy, and I paused to watch the unfolding tragedy in genuine disbelief.
“For those who are just joining us, I’m afraid we have some discouraging news,” reported the on-air journalist, “Celebrated SciTech, Vincent Kuhlbert, has been reported to have lost control of his Evo last night. During the incident, his mother and sister were killed, and his house burned to the ground. Just when we’d all had such high hopes for the boy, we are faced with a painful reminder that even the most promising individuals are at risk for this unexplained phenomenon in unraveling Evo-lved lineages.”
I bit my lip, deciding whether or not to believe what the news portrayed as the truth. Surely, this had to be a mistake. There was no way that someone as level-headed and intelligent as Vince could have been victimized by his own Evo-lved abilities!
“Payton, sweetie,” interrupted my mom, “You have to get to school!”
“Got it, mom!” I replied quickly.
But I returned my attention to the screen, where aerial shots of the burned down house were currently being shown. It was a bleak sight. Black-charred wooden frames leaned sideways, with no walls or ceilings to partition the rooms that had once existed. Even more devastating was how very little else remained of the family home on the inside, with only shadowy outlines of where furniture and picture frames once were.
Dazed by the destruction of the fire, I fumbled for my elastic hair tie around my wrist. Once I got a hold of it, I pulled my long honey-blonde hair back into its usual ponytail and accessorized with one of my favorite faded, dark-blue baseball caps. I then straightened out my dark red T-shirt over an old pair of baggy jeans and completed my fashion disaster of a look with a pair of bright orange running shoes.
“We kindly ask that all citizens remain on high alert,” added the same newscaster, “Our Praetorian guard has not yet detained Mr. Kuhlbert, and his Evo is very dangerous. If anyone suspects he may be in your area, please don’t hesitate to call the Praetorian guard as quickly as possible.”
I grabbed my orange backpack aggressively and slung it over my right shoulder. Along with my sneakers, the orange color clashed oddly with my red shirt, alerting me to the painful glare of my mismatched outfit. My eyes then narrowed at the television, where I was still grappling with the recent news of Vincent Kuhlbert’s recent downfall. Whatever had happened, I didn’t want to believe that it was due to the unraveling genetics of Evo-lved citizens. It couldn’tbe, because if it were, then we’d all be at risk. Or, at the very least, I knew that
Irritated, I slammed the front door to my house and left for school. My thoughts antagonized me along the way, as they replayed the news story I’d just heard over and over again in my mind’s eye. Images of the burned down house flashed before me, and the destruction I witnessed haunted every step I took. Even more than that, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about Vincent Kuhlbert, and how I’d lost the one person I’d looked up to this entire time.
As someone who had a similar Evo to my own, Vince had become an important role model to me. He had done so much good for the world, with an Evo-lved ability that was easy to fear or be uncomfortable around. I had hoped to follow in his footsteps, by being someone who could continue his legacy with the research he’d done to help protect others. Unfortunately, though, his untimely end as an admired Evo-lved citizen proved that we are all vulnerable to the possibility of losing control of our superhuman abilities. After all, Vince had lost his Evo the same way as all the others had. There was no warning, and his Evo-lved ability was just as unique and different as all the others had been, meaning it wasn’t just one type of Evo that was at risk. The only similarity seemed to be that the crises involved only individuals from ancient Evo-lved lineages, and who possessed powerful Evo’s.
Either way, this was a terrifying reality to be faced with. The roles that each of these people served in society had all been good ones. They were protectors, intelligent minds, and philanthropists aimed at bettering society. So, what had gone wrong?
I stopped at a crosswalk in the middle of a small, rural village. Old Victorian houses lined the streets, and ahead of me, there was a red brick school. I wasn’t really looking forward to being there today. As one of three Evo-lved citizens amongst my Unevo-lved peers, it was difficult standing out, and even worse being feared.
“So, I heard your boyfriend went off the deep end,” came a voice behind me.
I whipped my head in the direction of who spoke, and I saw my best friend, Kai Emerson, grinning at me with a bemused expression that was irritating.
“Shut up, Kai,” I snapped, “You know it could have easily been either of us.”
Kai frowned as he contemplated the idea, his hazel eyes shifting in nervous consideration. Then, he pushed back his short chestnut brown hair and shook his head.
“Nah,” he rejected immediately, “I’d never let my Evo go like that.”
“I’m not sure we’re being given much of a choice,” I conveyed heavily.
I stared at my hands, trying to pinpoint the chaotic potential I knew I possessed. Even if it wasn’t apparent, I knew it was undoubtedly there. After all, all Evo-lved citizens had that capacity. We were considered to be the descendants of gods, and even with the advances of science and technology explaining our Evo-lved powers, it did little to humanize us. But I had even more cause for concern now. Like my famed SciTech idol, I had a very similar type of Evo to his and therefore, I was probably at greater risk of losing control over it.
“Hey,” called out Kai beside me.
He squeezed one of my hands tightly, and I glanced in his direction expectantly. His hazel eyes sparkled knowingly, the way they always did when he could tell what was on my mind without me even telling him.
“You’ll be alright,” reassured Kai, “I promise. Just remember, you’re nothing like him, Payton. You have far more potential than he ever did, and I’ll be by your side, protecting you, every step of the way.”
“Thanks, Kai,” I expressed gratefully, “I appreciate that.”
Kai smiled, and he squeezed my hand again just as we were about to cross. Then, walking ahead of me, I saw his white shirt catch on the cool, early spring breeze. The symbolic golden eagle of the Praetorian army on the back of his shirt creased and folded over, so that it’s extended wings almost appeared to flapping in an attempt to soar off his strong back.
However, I winced when I saw the aquila, reminded of how Kai was a fresh new recruit for the Praetorian army. It was a dangerous path for him to pursue. As a Praetorian, he would be expected to put his life on the line to protect his fellow citizens and the noble sovereignty. I hated the idea that Kai could be on the front lines like that, fighting wars or aiding in top secret rescue missions. But I also couldn’t help but be proud of him too. It was just the sort of selflessness that I expected of Kai, and which had also gotten him to enlist.
I followed Kai to the school’s main entrance, where kids my age were gathering. No one went out of their way to say anything to me or Kai, though. Instead, we were dodged or warily watched with suspicious glances, as if everyone half-expected us to self-combust or become a swirling mass of chaos. No doubt, this was because of the recent news of Vincent Kuhlbert’s tragedy.
“I’ll see you in a bit,” announced Kai, as he suddenly dodged left.
I nodded and then continued straight ahead to my own locker. I didn’t look at anyone as I walked, but delusions on how everyone was reacting to me soon became difficult to bear. I took a deep breath and jogged the rest of her way to my locker, quickly typing the four-digit code that was needed to open it.
With a pop!, my locker door swung open, offering me a small shield to hide behind against the judging world around me. I quickly exchanged my textbooks for the upcoming morning, pausing only to stare at a red emblazoned sticker on the inside of my locker door. In bold white words against the red backdrop, “The Moira League” emblem stood out plainly against a wall of chemical breakthroughs and magnetic atoms that dotted the rest of my locker door. I knew it wasn’t a lot like the rest of the girls my age, who had chosen to decorate their academic refuges with a variety of shirtless male models and other feminine touches of hearts, stars, or brightly colored paper. However, I did have a picture of one boy that I’d cut out from a newspaper article, and now, I stared at the familiar face that possessed the same dark messy hair and gray-blue eyes as Vincent Kuhlbert.
“What happened to you?” I asked the picture, worried, “Are we really that dangerous?”
A few girls to my left stared at me, like I was crazy. My face burned, and I quickly shut my locker, embarrassed by what I’d said. It was only after they’d left that I dared to reopen my locker again, grabbing the armful of the books that I needed before I headed to class.
The hallways were crowded with other students, stopping at their lockers or forming ill-placed social circles to catch up with friends. It was the usual obstacle course that I had to maneuver to get to class on time. I did my best to dodge unexpected stop-and-go peers, who would get distracted by random friends and teachers, and I did everything in my power not to bump into them. Unfortunately, the few times I did, they’d look at me like I was the reaper, ready to collect their souls for the underworld. It was annoying, but there was no way I could’ve explained enough that I wasn’t out to hurt them, so I pushed along as I always did, with my focus set on where I was going.
Then, rounding one last corner, I spotted my final destination. I shuffled my legs as quickly as I could and turned through the open door to my homeroom. At the last minute, another young boy stepped into the door frame with me, and an inevitable collision ensued! The sudden impact forced him back, and he fell to the floor, whacking his head against the door frame! As if that wasn’t bad enough, the books that I had so precariously balanced in my arms toppled over too, half-burying the boy that I’d bumped into!
“Oh, crap! Are you okay!?” I asked, alarmed.
“Ye-yeah,” replied the boy dazed.
His dark gray eyes squinted in pain and he rubbed the back of his head slowly. Without thinking twice, I quickly collected my heavy textbooks from off of him and continued to apologize profusely in the process.
“Seriously, I’m so, so sorry,” I apologized sincerely, “I had no idea that you were there until it was too late. I was in a hurry to get to class, so I’m really sorry.”
The boy looked up at me and his cheeks suddenly got very pink. He pulled his oversized gray hoodie up and over his face, so that I only saw his medium-length, black hair sticking out at odd angles as he shook his head.
“Uh, well, you are okay, right?” I asked.
The young boy pulled the bottom part of his hoodie down to reveal the rest of his face, and then nodded. He pushed himself off the floor and stood up, brushing his backpack off before doing the same to his black, ripped jeans.
“Yeah,” replied the boy shyly, without looking at me, “I’m good.”
In my determination to apologize for being unfocused, I hadn’t noticed who I’d run into. But upon seeing him more closely, I realized with a bit of a shock that I’d bumped into the only other Evo-lved citizen in my school - Gideon Atwell.
“Oh, Gideon,” I acknowledged, “I, umm ….”
I didn’t know what to say. Despite being one of the very few Evo-lved citizens in my hometown, I had never really gotten to know Gideon Atwell. It’s true that we’d been going to the same schools ever since we were kids, but in all that time, the elusive boy had always kept to himself.
“Don’t worry about it, Payton,” reassured Gideon, “I’m fine.”
He shouldered his way to the back of our homeroom and took a seat. I watched him, curious to know more about him, but I held back, knowing that I’d likely get the brush off again, like I always did from Gideon.
“Still trying to get close to him?” asked Kai behind me.
I turned, glimpsing Kai’s tall, muscular frame in the doorway and I noticed his hazel eyes narrow in tight concern.
“I’m just worried about him,” I admitted, “He’s always alone, and it’s hard enough being an Evo-lved citizen in these more isolated parts. I just don’t want him to bottle himself up because he’s afraid of getting close to others for being different.”
“I know,” agreed Kai, “But we can’t change his mind.”
I looked up at Kai. He towered at least a foot above me, though my smaller physique didn’t help matters there. Then, I returned my attention to Gideon and watched as he leaned back in his chair to stare up at the ceiling.
“Did you ever try getting to know Gideon?” I asked Kai.
“Once,” replied Kai, “We didn’t really connect, and he stayed away from me after that.”
I frowned, and the warning bell sounded overhead. Quickly, I left Kai and hurried to my seat, avoiding the fearful glances of my Unevo-lved classmates. Honestly, I wished they wouldn’t do that. It was deeply unsettling, but I supposed it was better than the othertype of reaction I’d sometimes see. Although much more rare, the other kind of attention Evo-lved citizens received was even more unbearable than being feared, and unfortunately, the only time I regularly encountered it was here, at my middle school.
Chapter #2 - Fear and Worship
Following homeroom, I spent the rest of my morning trying to focus on my classes. English, history, and hieroglyphs passed by in a blur, as intrusive thoughts from today’s news story interrupted my usual concentration. As a result, my notes were severely more lacking than they usually were, and I stared at my incomplete thoughts, aggravated that I didn’t have more thorough study material. It was a relief, therefore, that I found myself in my fourth period physical education class, since the best way for me to reset was by stretching out my legs.
Just as I’d expected, the collective discomfort of my class forced me out of playing kickball with them today. So, I used the time to walk the perimeter of the school on my own instead, where I was able to consider the many things that bothered me from the news story that morning.
One of the foremost thoughts I had on my mind was whether or not I’d be able to pursue a SciTech career path anymore. People were sure to have some reservations about someone like me, due to how similar my Evo was to Vincent Kuhlbert’s. It was a discouraging thought, and even worse, no amount of personal reassurance was believable on my end. There was just no predicting whether or not I’d end up losing control of my Evo too, especially with an ancient bloodline of my own.
Discontented that I hadn’t found a solution to my problem, I wearily trudged back to the locker room and changed before the rest of my class came back. I did my best to set my concerns aside, knowing that I'd have to be sharp in time for me to see one of my closest friends at lunch. But it was difficult not to let my fears consume me, and before I’d even had time to open my lunch bag, a tall girl my age stormed over to my usual table in hot discontent.
“I cannot believe they did that to you!” huffed the girl, “Forcing you to walk the perimeter of the school by yourself!? That’s outrageous! I’m going to confront the principal about this immediately!”
“Don’t,” I urged the girl, “They’ll just get upset with you again, Dakota.”
My friend, Dakota Bryant, slammed her lunch pail on the table and then looked around the room disgusted. I pulled her down next to me, in the hopes that she’d let it all go, but Dakota apparently had other ideas. She sat, very unwillingly, but made a thing of it by flicking her long reddish-brown hair over her shoulder wildly. Then, she eyed the room meanly with her sharp green-flecked brown eyes, making a final point, before she turned her attention to me.
“They don’t deserve your kindness,” insisted Dakota, “They’re allrude.”
“I’m sure they don’t see it that way,” I pointed out, “Besides, they’re all probably just scared of the unexplained incidents involving Evo-lved citizens and our unraveling abilities. It is kind of scary, even for us who have these powers.”
“That’s true, but they’ve always been like this with you! Even before all of these weird incidents started to happen!” snapped Dakota decidedly, “I mean, you don’t see me treating you like a freak.”
Before I could stop her, Dakota then stood up on her seat and whistled sharply at the room. My face felt hot with embarrassment, knowing too well where this was going next, and sure enough, Dakota reproached the entire room.
“You don’t see me treating Payton like a freak!” shouted Dakota, “Yeah, that’s right, people! She’s my friend! So, let’s be nice to her, please!”
“Dakota!” I hissed, “Oh my gosh! Stop that, you idiot!”
Dakota sat down again and shrugged her shoulders.
“It’s the truth,” reminded Dakota, “I’m Unevo-lved, and you’re like a sister to me.”
“Yes, well, you’re a rare exception,” I teased.
“Who’s a rare exception?” asked Kai, sitting down on my other side.
“Not you,” answered Dakota pointedly, “Payton is mine, Kai. Stay away from her.”
Kai rolled his eyes, while Dakota hung off of one of my shoulders.
“Girl, what’ve I told you about having your beautiful hair up like this?” observed Dakota suddenly, “You gotta wear it down. Then all the men will fall in love with you, like this dumb-dumb.”
Dakota gestured to Kai, and he coughed on a half-eaten sandwich.
“Wh-what!?” stuttered Kai.
“You heard me,” teased Dakota.
Kai’s cheeks reddened, and I saw him turn away, embarrassed.
“Don’t tease him, Dakota!” I chided instantly.
“Oh, right, I forgot he’s shy,” remembered Dakota sarcastically, “But, oh! I almost forgot! I was sosorry to hear about Vince! That was awful, girl!”
I lowered an apple I’d taken out of my bag, and my shoulders instantly sagged.
“Yeah, that sucked,” I admitted, “I really looked up to him.”
“Well, you’re still going to be a SciTech, right?” asked Dakota hopefully, “I mean, it’s been your dream! Just because Vince had a similar Evo to yours, and he lost control over it, that doesn’t mean that the same will happen to you! Surely, League programs should know that, right? They can’t possibly ban you from pursuing your dream!”
“No way,” jumped in Kai, “All League programs know that Evo-lved abilities are singularly unique to the individual who possesses them. It would be an infraction on Payton’s right to pursue what she wants, as someone who is separate from Vince. But ….”
Kai’s voice trailed off, but he didn’t need to say anymore for me to know what he was about to say next. Even if a program didn't stop me from pursuing my dream as a SciTech, there would surely be a lot of obstacles for me anyways. I’d be kept at arm’s length, and sponsors for research may not want to take on the chance of an individual they feel could lose control, especially if a similarly promising person already did.
“Don’t worry,” I reassured my friends, “I’m not going to give up on my dream of being a SciTech, I promise. No matter what I have to face now, I’ll get through it and prove myself.”
“Good,” expressed Kai, “Because you’ve got so much to offer, Payton. I’d hate to see you limit yourself because of what happened to that Vincent-whatever his name is. Besides, if you want my opinion anyways, I always thought he was a little half-crazy to begin with.”
“What!?” I retaliated, “He was not!”
“Yeah, he was!” exclaimed Kai, “Payton, think about it! How many people do you know who can swallow raw chemical compounds, like nitric acid, and still go on living like nothing happened!? And I’m talking about Evo-lvedcitizens here, since, even for us, that’s going a bit far.”
Kai’s face scrunched up like he was smelling something bad, and then he shuddered at the thought of being that inhumanely capable. I couldn’t help but smirk at Kai’s reaction, and I tried not to laugh. It was hard, though, since his horror-filled expression was amusing.
“It’s not funny,” snapped Kai, noticing my amusement, “Maybe that stuff didn’t kill him, but I’m sure it affected him in other ways. I mean, what if that was what made him lose control of his Evo in the end?”
I picked up some chips to throw at Kai, but I hesitated when the message he conveyed sunk in. It was surprisingly insightful, and I wasn’t sure if Kai was aware of what he was suggesting. I’d never considered that highly Evo-lved people engaging in their well-adapted abilities, however extreme, could be the root of the problem.
“Anyways,” continued Kai, “It’s terrible that this guy ended up the same as the others that lost control, but at least it gives you the chance to realize that you can do better, right?”
“Do better?” I asked Kai, not understanding his meaning.
“Well, yeah,” replied Kai shyly, “I mean, I know you looked up to the guy because he was a great SciTech, but outside of that, I wouldn’t say that there was anything special about him.”
I blushed, understanding that Kai was referring to the fact that I had a celebrity crush on Vince, in addition to how much I looked up to him for his brilliant mind.
“Vince was a great SciTech, Kai!” I defended immediately, “I liked him for his academic mind! I mean, sure, he’s handsome, and really tall, but th-that’s not …! It’s not like I knew him or anything!”
Next to me, Dakota giggled, and a sly smile spread across her face.
“Don’t worry, girl,” reassured Dakota, “Kai’s just jealous. He knows you’ve got good taste.”
Kai turned bright red again and took a hungry bite of a large oatmeal cookie he had in hand.
“Dakota!” I scolded, equally embarrassed.
Dakota gave me a sideways glance that pretty much said it all, and I turned away, flustered by her unwavering belief that Kai might have feelings for me.
However, before I could successfully change the subject, the problem I’d been waiting for entered the room. It rushed over to us and slid onto the opposite bench across from where we sat. Immediately, I sulked, not ready to deal with the absurdity of what was about to happen.
“M-my lady!” yelled a dorky kid with large, round glasses, “Oh, I heard about how you were slighted today! The nerve of these lesser mortals! I swear, if I’d been there, I would’ve made sure to do something for you!”
“Uh, Elie, i-it’s okay,” I stammered.
However, the boy, Elie Prescott, paid me no notice when I spoke. Instead, he continued to recite old texts on the proper treatment of Evo-lved citizens from back in the days when we were worshipped as gods. I sighed heavily, not ready to deal with this dose of annoyance on the ancient rituals and godly complexes of my ancestors. But unfortunately, I had no choice. Elie was obsessedwith the stuff, which meant he enjoyed the company of my Evo-lved self to that of his own Unevo-lved peers.
Next to me, Kai raised his eyebrows and smirked at me. Then, either from disbelief or amusement, he shook his head and chuckled. Elie didn’t seem to notice as he spoke, though. His glasses kept slipping down his large nose, so his wiry fingers had to keep pushing them back up quickly. Meanwhile, the floppy blonde hair he had bobbed dangerously, and his tall, slight frame, which was knobbly and boney from barely any muscle or fat, didn’t seem as if it would last much longer if he didn’t stop to draw breath soon.
“Hey,” interrupted Dakota loudly, “Did you know that Elie is going to be at the Moira League with us next year?”
She gave me and Kai a mischievous wink, but I didn’t share in my friend’s amusement of the situation and my heart sank to rock bottom.
As one of many four-year institutions for career-related studies, the Moira League boasted a wide-based curriculum of many different specialized majors. Among those majors were the well-reputable SciTech program, which I had selected to study, and a Praetorian training base, which Kai had enlisted in. However, unlike many of its kind, the Moira League also accepted both Evo-lved and Unevo-lved citizens. Not that I had a problem with that personally, but with Elie enrolled, I now had my doubts about my soon-to-be future school experience.
“Th-that’s right!” agreed Elie excitedly, “I’m going to be studying theology as it pertains to the Evo-lved citizens and their godhood. Plus, I’m going to be trained to be a proper high priest, so that I can be in charge of the ritual worship for you and others of your kind, my lady! Isn’t that awesome!?”
“Elie,” I insisted sharply, “We are not gods.”
“In fact, I’ve researched some of your lineage, Payton,” continued Elie, ignoring me, “I think you’ll find it really interesting too. Your family just moved here from Avalon, which, as you know, is the city of our great Sovereignty! That means that you probably have an ancient bloodline, and I think - !”
Elie was cut off by the bell, though, and I took the opportunity to leave right away. I didn’t need to be told about my ancient bloodline, since I was more than well-aware of who I was descended from. It wasn’t something I wanted a lot of people to know, and Elie’s curiosity in the subject made me uneasy. Thankfully, though, our quick response forced Elie to fall behind before any real discussion could be made about my bloodline, something I was grateful for as I made my way to my afternoon chemistry class.
Inside the lab, the sight of tall benches and elevated, red-cushioned chairs welcomed me as I made my way to the back of the class. Glassware, such as beakers and graduated cylinders, gleamed from within their encased cabinets almost like they were the most valuable jewels in the world. The faint smell of gas reached my nose too, inviting me into a world of Bunsen burners and other pyrokinetic properties. To many, chemistry lab was a tedious chore, but for me, it was the most exhilarating part of my day.a
“Okay!” announced our chemistry teacher, Mr. Goldberg, “Today, we’re going to be identifying different metals using the flame test! So, for this activity, I’m going to have you partner up by using the magic of pulling a name out of a hat! Who’s first!?”
Mr. Goldberg rubbed his handlebar mustache excitedly. Although in his mid-fifties, Mr. Goldberg still taught like he was in his twenties. His enthusiasm rubbed off on me every time I stepped into the room, and I always felt determined to be every bit the student he expected me to be.
Optimistic about the lab period ahead, I waited with bated breath for my turn to select a lab partner. My prospects grew better and better with each name selected in my class, and soon, I felt certain that I’d draw either Kai or Dakota’s name. When my turn finally came, I plunged my hand into the black top hat with every bit of confidence I had! But instead of drawing one of my two friend’s names, I ended up with the person I least wanted to partner with that afternoon.
Elie Prescott beamed at me from across the room and then happily skipped over to where I sat at a lab bench towards the back of the class. On his white t-shirt, there was an image of a single lituus, or a curved wand, which represented the augures, or priests, of Evo-lved citizens. Elie bowed slightly upon approaching me and then spun on his seat, stopping just in time to face me. His dark brown eyes sparkled as he bounced up and down in his excitement, while the rest of the class partnered off.
Curious to see if Kai was having better luck than me, I searched the lab to see where he had settled for the next couple of hours. Immediately, my heart stopped when I saw who he was with. Of all the people Kai could’ve been paired with, he had ended up with Gideon. The two boys sat off to the side of the class, where two large windows overlooked the school grounds below them. Gideon didn’t look particularly thrilled to be with Kai. He kept glancing around the walls or down at the floor, while Kai attempted a polite conversation with the boy.
“All right then!” exclaimed Mr. Goldberg, excitedly, “Let’s light those Bunsen burners and get started!”
I turned to do as my instructor commanded, but Elie had different ideas. As someone not as interested in the hard sciences, he seemed to decide that now was the perfect opportunity to shove a recently annotated sketch of a sovereignty emblem under my nose. The familiar triskele, or three joining spirals, from one of the Sovereign families came into view, where Elie had doodled the symbol on the edge of our instructions for the experiment, and I wrinkled my nose in agitation!
“See!?” squeaked Elie, “This is what I wanted to show you back at lunch!”
He waved the paper in front of my face, making it impossible for me to read anything else, but he gestured at a family heirloom I wore on my index finger, which had the same triskele symbol in silver and turquoise stones.
“Don’t you get what this means!?” asked Elie excitedly, “Payton, you could be related to the Sovereignty!”
I snatched our instructions out of Elie’s hand and set it on our bench, ignoring his previous comment. It wasn’t something I was comfortable getting into at the moment, and I was also angry that he’d done so much digging into my personal life!
“Elie, don’t wave the paper around like that,” I advised cooly, “People have Bunsen burners on in here, and we have to start our own.”
“I wonder which Sovereign you’d be related to?” wondered Elie dreamy-eyed, “Oh wow, I bet it’s like Queen Morrigan or maybe even .... But that’d be crazy! Could you even imagine it!? Being related to the Emperor!?”
I had a feeling this lab might be an uphill battle when I’d gotten Elie’s name earlier, but this was proving to be more than I’d anticipated. All the boy ever wanted to talk about was Evo-lved citizens, their Evo’s, or their ancient god-like lineages. And, sure enough, that’s exactly what was happening.
As Elie continued to talk, I noticed him fidget with the gas outlet distractedly while he swung the flint striker around in his other hand. With all the gas in the lab, I barely noticed that the smell coming from our burner was much stronger than it should have been. Then, however, I noticed the potent smell grow stronger, and I threw my hand out towards Elie to get him to stop!
“No, wait!” I yelled.
But it was too late! Elie flicked the flint striker and it sparked. In an instant, a huge fireball erupted, engulfing him! He screamed and ran through the room like a giant torch! I closed off the gas line and sprinted after him desperately! People screamed all around the lab, while Mr. Goldberg ran for the fire extinguisher! But I got to Elie first!
I threw my hands up in the air, doing the one thing I knew I probably shouldn’t, and I engaged my Evo! The carbon dioxide I created swept over Elie, and the fire was smothered instantly. Then, I slid over to Elie’s side and folded my hand over his nose and mouth to create a makeshift oxygen mask. Elie gasped into my hand, terrified! While he caught his breath, I noticed the severe burns he’d taken on across his arms and back, and I clasped my hand firmly on his right arm so that I could apply ice using a simple endothermic reaction.
Despite my intuitive reaction to the event, I was in quite a bit of shock myself. My body trembled from the sudden rush of adrenaline, while my mind slowly caught up with what had just happened. It felt like I was several steps behind the current moment, making my surroundings unfamiliar and confusing.
The voice drifted in from far away, but then Kai fell beside me a second later. He grabbed my shoulders with a wild expression, and the fear he outwardly showed shook me down to my very core.
“Are you all right?” asked Kai, panicked.
I nodded slowly, still trying to make sense of everything that had just happened. But Kai’s concern did not waver, and I saw him eye the rest of the class suspiciously.
“What is it?” I asked worried.
“It’s your Evo, Payton,” muttered Kai quietly.
I paused, Kai’s words washing over me dully. Then, the sound of hushed whispers grated against my nerves, alerting me to the general unease in the classroom despite what I’d done to save Elie’s life.
“Payton, dear,” said Mr. Goldberg as he approached me, “Let’s get you to my office.”
I glanced from Mr. Goldberg to Elie, who seemed much more relaxed now that he was breathing normally, so I nodded and let my hand fall away from him as I stood up with Kai. My body was jittery and unsteady as I rose, but Kai’s tight grip around my waist kept me from falling over.
Then, just when I’d steadied myself, I saw Elie come forward out of the corner of my eye. His shirt was charred and in tatters, and his skin had nasty, red blisters despite the ice that now clung to it. He breathed heavily as he lowered his head to the ground by my feet, and I froze in certain confusion and concern.
“Th-Thank you,” stammered Elie breathlessly, “Y-you saved my life, Payton.”
I stopped, unsure of what to say. I’d never been in a position where someone was groveling at my feet. It was embarrassing, and I wished Elie would stop!
“Your Evo is remarkable!” praised Elie, “You put out the fire and made the ice for my wounds! You’re truly a goddess among gods!”
“No, I’m not, Elie!” I rejected immediately, “It was just a few simple tricks. I used carbon dioxide to put out the fire, and then I gave you oxygen so you didn’t pass out. It’s just science.”
The room fell silent again. Pure astonishment could be seen from almost every person there, and then, a few students took a knee in acknowledgement of what I had done to save Elie.
“And the ice?” asked another student inquisitively, “What about that?”
“It was a simple endothermic reaction,” I explained, “I didn’t want the burns to go too long without being properly cared for.”
“Your Evo can do allof that?” asked yet another student astonished, “How?”
“Well, I control chemical reactions,” I admitted hesitantly, “That means I can do a lot of different things.”
I looked down at the floor as I answered, and Kai’s arm tightened around my shoulders. I knew he must be worried about me, as the secrets of my powerful Evo came to light in my unexpected demonstration that afternoon. But I was glad he was with me, though. There was no way I wanted to face this alone.
“You don’t have to explain anymore than that, Payton,” negotiated Mr. Goldberg on my behalf, “Kai, why don’t you bring her to my office until the EMT’s arrive.”
I felt Kai steer me away, but some of my class apparently wasn’t finished with me yet.
“What the hell kind of an Evo do you have, Payton!?” asked a tough-looking boy that stood quite close to me.
“Yeah,” agreed another skeptically, “It sounds like it’s the exactsame as Vincent Kuhlbert’s Evo! You’re just like him, aren’t you!?”
I whipped my head around, and I saw half of my class eyeing me warily. Upon hearing the name of my recent role model, I recalled the pride I’d had in sharing an Evo with one of the most promising SciTechs of the century. Even if Vincent Kuhlbert had been bested by his Evo, that didn’t mean I’d follow the same bloody path!
“No,” I rallied confidently, “I’m not like him. I won’t lose control of my Evo and I would never hurt other people with it! Whatever is happening to Evo-lved Citizens, I won’t let it get the best of me!”
With that, I walked out of the room and into Mr. Goldberg’s adjoining office, with Kai close behind. Whatever anyone had to say after I’d left, I didn’t know. To me, this had been my very first test in showing the world who I truly was, and I was determined to continue to uphold the promise I made to myself. I wasn’t going to be bested by my own Evo no matter what, and I wasn’t going to let anyone else get in the way of my becoming a world-renowned SciTech either.
Chapter #3 - Praetorian Intervention
As Mr. Goldberg had promised, the paramedics arrived to take care of Elie and, soon, he was on his way to the hospital to get further checked out. Only after Elie had left was I allowed to return to my afternoon classes. The majority of my classmates stayed well away from me, and although no one talked openly about what happened, I could still hear their harsh whispers and see their judging glances.
The only people who stayed by me were Kai and Dakota. Kai acted as a bodyguard, more or less, glaring at anyone who attempted to make sly remarks about me in front of him. Dakota, on the other hand, was even more outwardly opinionated than usual, remarking on my heroic act to save another while slinging insults at anyone who rubbed her the wrong way. As grateful as I was for two such supportive friends, I did wish that they weren’t so proactive on my behalf. After all, I was under enough pressure as it was, dealing with the repercussions of other failed Evo-lved citizens in addition to my own actions now.
Unaware of what the rest of the afternoon would bring, I stepped into my ninth period class. Mr. Goldberg was there, and I noticed him speak hurriedly with my math instructor. Then, my chemistry teacher gestured for me to come over to him, and Kai followed while Dakota hung back.
“I did everything I could,” relayed Mr. Goldberg quickly, “But this is beyond me, Ms. Daelyn. They’re asking for younow.”
I glanced at Kai apprehensively, and he stepped in front of me protectively.
“Who’s asked for her?” inquired Kai anxiously, “She’s done nothing wrong.”
“Yes, well, technically they’d like to see you and Mr. Atwell, too,” admitted Mr. Goldberg uncomfortably.
Gideon approached us carefully, the hood of his sweater down so that his straight, black hair hung low over his gray eyes.
“Let’s go, you three,” insisted Mr. Goldberg.
Our teacher signaled for us to follow him, and as we left, I saw Dakota hesitate, almost like she wasn’t sure if she should come with us too. I tried to give her a reassuring smile, but my face felt oddly tight and stiff compared to how it normally was. Soon, though, I heard the familiar snippy voice of our math teacher, and Dakota slowly turned away from the door.
Left on our own now, the empty hallways were eerily quiet. Only the projected voices of our instructors could be heard through the open classroom doors, where a sanctuary of illuminated learning could be glimpsed as I walked by. Seeing the attentive peace of my peers as they engaged in their classes gave me pointed longing for the same life, and I tried to imagine a world where the looming stress of failed Evo-lved abilities was nonexistent. It was an incredible fiction to envision, and I wished for a reality that would resemble it. However, with every step forward, I was reminded of my real circumstances and I frowned in frustrated displeasure.
Around me, I sensed an amounting tension as we got closer to our destination. Gideon kept glaring at me unkindly, intensifying the guilt I already felt for why he was probably with me. Meanwhile, Kai was rigid and tense in his movement, with balled up fists and a grim expression that didn’t suit him.
On the first floor of our building, we stopped at a large faculty conference room. Inside, three Praetorian guards stood waiting for us. They were dressed sharply in navy blue, white, and gold uniforms. The sleeves of their jackets boasted eagle wings that were stenciled in white and gold, and which reflected brilliantly against the blue hue of their fabric. Their militia caps, too, showed the golden aquila, the representative symbol of the Praetorian army, and I briefly thought again about how this was Kai’s destiny.
But, this was no time to be in awe at my friend’s future. The sight of the Praetorian guard confirmed that I was in a lotof trouble, and upon realizing this, I felt my heart stop. My legs suddenly felt weak and shaky, and tears tugged at the back of my eyes. It took everything in my power to remain composed, though deep down I wanted to run away as fast as I could.
Beside me, I saw Kai hesitate as Mr. Goldberg urged us all to sit down. Seeing as this was probably all my fault to begin with, I was the first to move. It was like someone else was moving my body for me. In all my heightened alert and fear, nothing felt real and I was surprised I could manage to sit across from the middle Praetorian officer at the mahogany conference table. Kai followed close behind me, as he always did, and Gideon took up the rear, shuffling uncomfortably. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Gideon pause at the end of the table and then sit down, clearly in a hastened desire to be as far away from me and Kai as possible.
Once we sat down, the middle Praetorian officer sat across from us. She was a tall woman with neatly tucked brown hair and blue eyes. I watched her quietly, as the woman placed a small brown briefcase on the table in front of me. From within it, the Praetorian officer pulled out a single document, and I eyed the piece of paper apprehensively.
“Good, you’re all here,” stated the Praetorian officer, “I’m Officer Allen, and the two guards behind me are Private Keyne and Private Pyrrhos.”
The two privates that still stood behind Officer Allen were quite young, probably no more than twenty-five years old. The guard on the left, who the officer had called Private Keyne, was a slender man with long, wavy golden-brown hair and startling amber eyes. His partner, Private Pyrrhos, stood on the right. He was a bald man with dark tan skin, bright orange eyes, and a strong, muscular build. The difference in size between them made me wonder about the difference in their Praetorian training programs, since one clearly looked stronger and more intimidating than the other.
“So, I see we had an incidentat school today,” continued Officer Allen, “That’s why I was called here.”
Officer Allen eyed me specifically before continuing.
“The report is as follows,” read Officer Allen from the document she pulled out earlier, “Ms. Payton Daelyn, a fourteen-year-old Evo-lved citizen, knowingly and willingly activated her Evo, which controls chemical reactions, during her sixth period chemistry lab class. It is undetermined whether her Evo was activated prior to witness observations of an Unevo-lved citizen, Mr. Elie Prescott, being on fire. However, witness accounts do say that Mr. Elie Prescott’s fire was put out when Ms. Daelyn interfered, and that his second-degree burns were also treated with her Evo as well.”
Officer Allen stopped and gently put the document down. I could only listen quietly, scared of the potential misinterpretation of that account. There were a lot of ways for that statement to be heard, and I imagined the many ways a judge or jury could perceive that I’d gone out of my way to harm someone.
“You understand that we were called in once the hospital staff and police determined that an Evo-lved ability was a part of this story?” addressed Officer Allen seriously.
I nodded, keeping my eyes averted from the Praetorian officer.
“I’m here to ensure that no foul play took place, Ms. Daelyn,” continued Officer Allen sharply, “Now, in your
own words, describe to me what happened.”
I lifted my head, praying that I’d find the words to speak so that I could completely portray what had happened in my chemistry lab earlier. However, my voice faltered in my fear stricken state.
“Wait a second!” cut in Kai suddenly, “I’m sure you can see that Payton was only trying to help her lab partner! She wasn’t out to hurt him!”
Officer Allen directed her cold, sharp eyes on Kai, and I nudged him disapprovingly.
“Silence!” ordered Officer Allen, “It is for your friend to relay the truth, not you. Now, what happened!?”
Kai’s nostrils flared, and he gave a nasty, unforgiving glare to Officer Allen. But the Praetorian was right. It was for me to defend myself here, and no one else. So, I finally summoned the courage to speak, and I recounted the tale of what had happened in my sixth period chemistry lesson. As I told my side of the story, I was sure to emphasize how Elie had been distracted as he played with the gas outlet before lighting a Bunsen burner. When all was said and done, I paused and watched the expression of Officer Allen carefully. With some luck, the Praetorian relaxed and folded her hands in front of her. Then, she finally addressed my side of the story.
“Well, lucky for you, Ms. Daelyn, the story you just told me lines up with what Mr. Elie Prescott said happened,” informed Officer Allen, “He admitted to distractedly playing with the gas outlet and lighting the Bunsen burner absentmindedly. Mr. Prescott also insisted that you went out of your way to save him, Ms. Daelyn. Interesting boy ….”
The thought of Elie interacting with the Praetorians was embarrassing. I imagined how theatrical he probably was, with his outlandish tendencies to worship and revere people who were Evo-lved. That probably didn’t go over well with the Praetorian guard, and Officer Allen appeared disgruntled as she spoke of Elie. At the same time, I realized that I wasn’t surprised that Elie had defended me either. In fact, even more discomforting, I felt certain that even if I haddone something intentional to him, Elie would probably have still defended me anyways, as the Evo-lved citizen I was.
“Your teacher also speaks very highly of you,” added Officer Allen, as she interrupted my thoughts, “You’re a straight A student and responsible, with no history of having shown your Evo outlandishly here at school.”
Officer Allen gestured to Mr. Goldberg, and I saw my chemistry teacher nod confidently. My own shoulders started to relax now, and I breathed a little deeper as well.
“S-so then, nothing’s going to happen to Payton?” asked Kai tentatively.
“No, nothing is going to happen to Ms. Daelyn, for now,” communicated Officer Allen elusively, “But we will be keeping a closer eye on her, though, and on you two as well.”
The Praetorian gestured to Kai and Gideon, and I saw Kai blink stupidly in his shock. Gideon, on the other hand, stood up so fast that his chair toppled over behind him, and he lashed out from his quiet agitation.
“What have I done!?” yelled Gideon, “It’s Payton who used her Evo, not me!”
Gideon glared at me as he waited for his answer, while Kai remained in stunned silence. Officer Allen then turned her chair to Gideon and leaned back, almost like she was about to enjoy a light conversation.
“Mr. Atwell, do I need to remind you that we’ve had our eye on youfor other reasons related to the use of your Evo,” informed Officer Allen, “But for this situation, as relates to Ms. Daelyn, we have other objectives that are far more serious than any of you can know.”
I glanced quickly at Kai, who returned my inquisitive expression. His hazel eyes were stiff with worry, and he rubbed the back of his head in his distress.
“These are tough times we’re living in, and everyone’s scared of who’s going to lose control of their Evo next,” relayed Officer Allen curtly, “The Praetorian army is doing everything it can to monitor its Evo-lved citizens, but we can no longer turn a blind eye to cases that are well outside city borders. That means that it’s necessary we keep track of you three, especially as Evo-lved citizens who have chosen to live away from where the rest of our kind tend to congregate.”
“But,” pointed out Kai, “We didn’t choose to live all the way out here! Our parents made that choice, and - !”
“We understand that,” interrupted Officer Allen, “Still, given what is going on with Evo-lved citizens losing control of their Evo’s, we must prioritize who to protect. Unevo-lved citizens are defenseless against us in these cases, so our responsibility is of the utmost importance here.”
Kai’s head hung low, and I slipped my hand into his for reassurance. Immediately, he relaxed and nodded, showing his understanding to Officer Allen as she explained the tense circumstances to us all.
“As such, it was appalling to hear that you, Ms. Daelyn, had chosen to use your Evo the day after another Evo-lved citizen, with a similar ability to your own, lost control over his Evo and killed his family,” added Office Allen curtly, “I advise you to use better sense in the future. After all, people in these parts are already wary of your ability to control chemical reactions, and now they have even more reason to fear you. Keep that in mind from now on.”
I didn’t need to be reminded twice. It was all that had been on my mind today, and I was certain it would go on to haunt me forever after. But for now, I was spared any more on the matter, and Officer Allen excused herself a moment later. Her Praetorian guard followed her out, and as they left, I noticed Private Keyne nod quickly to Gideon. It seemed unusual that the private would acknowledge Gideon if there wasn’t a personal acquaintance, but my classmate made no effort to return the gesture. Instead, Gideon kept his narrowed eyes in front of him, dismissive of everything else that was around him or in the room.
Once the Praetorians had left, we were dismissed from the faculty conference room and sent home. I suppose I should’ve expected that, but I was still disappointed that I couldn’t go back to my ninth period math class. If there was anything I disliked, it was missing school for any reason (even the legitimate ones). But, at the same time, Kai reminded me that it was probably for the best, especially after the day I’d had in losing my SciTech idol and in being told that the Praetorian guard was keeping an eye on me now.
Of course, Kai made an excellent point. It hadbeen a day of trials, and for most people, that would have been enough of an excuse to turn in early, with the hope that tomorrow would be a better day. However, for me, coping with intangible truths meant pouring over books or being immersed in school. Without those outlets, I didn’t really know what to do, but thankfully, Kai had a really good back-up plan that we went to shortly after we turned down the mainstreet of our hometown.
The small Village of Kismet was a quaint area, with Victorian houses and red-brick shopping plazas that lined a single main street. A large red-brick church, with its remarkably tall steeple, stood at the entrance of the town, and further in, I spotted the white bell tower on our village hall. Just a ways beyond that, we passed the library, which immediately enticed me with its array of displayed books and study alcoves. But Kai led me away from such desirous things and across a reddish-brown lift bridge to the other side of the canal.
There, Kai and I then turned down a flight of stairs and into a small village square. An outdoor deck by the canal path greeted us, as families and friends sat under the high afternoon sun to enjoy coffee, ice cream, and hot sandwiches. I blushed, excited by the aromas that now played with my taste buds, when Kai directed me to a nearby green bench.
“Wait here, okay?” insisted Kai excitedly, “I’ll get us something good to eat.”
I nodded and set down my bag, while Kai stepped into the ice cream shop. It was sweet of him to bring me here, and I smiled stupidly to myself as I took a seat on our bench along the canal. The muddy green waters flowed slowly under the lift bridge that Kai and I had walked over, and I admired the historical red brick towpath, imagining a time when mules had pulled the boats instead of high-tech motors.
Soaking in the moment, I glanced down the canal path to see who else was taking advantage of such a beautiful afternoon. With the sun shining, it was warmer than it usually was for April. Joggers and bikers passed by in light jackets and shorts, while young kids munched on delicious ice cream that would’ve been too cold to enjoy on a cloudy fifty-degree day.
Of course, not everyone seemed to be aware of the day’s promise that spring was coming. A few benches down from me, I noticed someone sitting off on their own in a layered sweater and jacket combination that felt too stuffy for a day like this. He fiddled with the strings of the hoodie he wore underneath his black jacket, and his straight black hair blew in the light breeze. I suppose I should’ve recognized him, but it wasn’t until his cold, grey eyes locked with mine that I knew who it was.
Quickly, I turned away from the cool, disapproving glare that Gideon welcomed me with, doing my best to keep my composure. However, my body shuddered a response anyways, and my appetite for chocolate-coconut ice cream also seemed to dissipate instantly.
“Hey, it’s Payton, right?”
I turned to who spoke, not expecting to know the person who’d approached me. However, shockingly, I realized that it was one of the Praetorian privates I’d met earlier that afternoon. His amber eyes sparkled excitedly as he smiled at me with a goofy grin, and the light breeze blew his long, golden brown hair across his face while his blue cap tried to keep the rest of it in place.
“Y-yeah,” I replied, “I-I am.
“Right, well, I’m not sure if you remember me, but I’m Private Keyne,” he greeted formally.
He held out his hand for me, and I reluctantly returned his greeting handshake. After all, I wasn’t entirely sure what he was here, and I half-suspected I was being followed.
“Jeez, don’t make her uncomfortable, Wyndham,” cut in the other Praetorian from earlier that day.
“I’m not trying to,” remarked Private Keyne innocently, “Just saying hi.”
The second private, who I remembered was Private Pyrrhos, rolled his eyes at his comrade before turning to me. His orange eyes flickered warmly, like a small fire, and I instantly knew that I wasn’t in any kind of trouble for having run into them.
“Private Pyrrhos,” reintroduced the private quickly, as he shook my hand, “Hope you’re doing well, Ms. Daelyn.”
“I-I guess,” I replied unconvincingly.
The two Praetorians shared a quick look, and then both broke out into wide smiles.
“Look, we know the officer can be tough,” remarked Private Pyrrhos, “But you’re not a bad person for what you did today. In fact, we’re really grateful to have outstanding citizens like you. You saved your classmate today, and I know that Officer Allen is glad of that too. It’s just that these incidents involving Evo-lved citizens losing control over their Evo’s is really starting to wear on her. It’s not exactly an easy thing to deal with, after all, but we wanted you to know that we’re here to support you too.”
I immediately felt myself relax with Private Pyrrhos’ reassurance and I smiled to show him that I understood. However, before I could say anything more on the matter, something unusual caught my eye. Private Pyrrhos’ skin turned an off-gray color, and then, it started to crack unevenly. From between the cracks, black smoke rose in swirls around him, giving him a shadowed appearance that was eerie and uncomfortable to be near in broad daylight.
“Uh, Private Pyrrhos?” I asked hesitantly, “A-are you, uh, okay?”
Private Pyrrhos didn’t answer me though. Instead, he frowned and I watched him fall to the ground unexpectedly, as thick billows of heavy smoke erupted from the glowing hot embers I could see within his skin.
“Whoa! Aidan, you all right!?” asked Private Keyne, startled.
“I-I don’t…. I don’t feel so good,” expressed Private Pyrrhos painfully.
I turned to Private Keyne, alarmed by the amounting black smoke and ash that was coming from his comrade, when Private Pyrrhos began to scream! His soft orange eyes turned sharp red and savage, and a second later, his body was blasted apart into black soot and hot ash! I threw one of my arms up in front of me to block the flying debris, and I squinted my eyes to see what was becoming of Private Pyrrhos.
It was a bleak sight. The once sunny afternoon had turned dark and stormy, and where Private Pyrrhos had once stood, there was now only a tall, swirling tower of hellfire and magma! The heat from the volcanic elements seared my skin, and I heard myself cry out before I doubled over! Then, the heavy curtain of post-incendiary pollutants eclipsed the sun entirely, and I was smothered into a shadowed world of fire and toxic fumes.
Nearby, I could hear innocent bystanders scream and wail in their circumstantial terror! Car doors slammed and tires screeched on hot pavement from getaway drivers desperate to stay alive! I, however, froze in my silent horror, mesmerized by the catastrophic spectacle before me! After all, I was witnessing the one thing that all Evo-lved Citizens had come to dread - Private Pyrrhos was losing control of his Evo.
Chapter #4 - Ash and Smoke
There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to die. The volcanic gases poisoned me with each breath I took, and the scalding temperatures threatened to incinerate the rest of me! Even worse was the stifling hot ash! It set my lungs on fire and suffocated the last remnants of healthy breath I still had left within me, blurring my vision. My body became weak, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I lost consciousness entirely.
“Payton! Get back!” ordered Private Keyne.
I glanced ahead at the private, delirious from the heat and fumes. His tall, lanky form tried to shield me from the worst of it, but I already knew there was no hope.
My first thought was of Kai. I knew how wholly devastated he’d be that he wasn’t here with me. He was always like that. Blaming himself for things when there was no way it was his fault. I just hoped he’d find the strength to move on from this, and I wished there was a way I could tell him goodbye.
A strong wind blew in then. I half-expected it to blow the incinerated pieces of me with it, as I crumbled into nothing. Instead, the suffocating heat and poisonous gases around me lessened, and the accompanying hot, dry air became clean and accessible. I inhaled sharply. The hot air scalded my lungs, making them feel blistered, but the lack of toxins was welcome compared to the poison I was breathing in before, and I embraced it!
My vision became clearer and I staggered. My strength hadn’t come back all the way, and I stumbled into something. It felt like a person, and my first thought was that Kai had found me. However, when I looked up to see him, I caught the rough outline of Private Keyne. His wavy, golden-brown hair flowed loosely in the air currents he controlled, and somehow, I knew I was going to be okay.
“Payton!” yelled Private Keyne, “You alright!?”
I nodded and straightened up, getting a good look at my surroundings for the first time since Private Pyrrhos had lost control of his Evo.
Beneath my feet, the pavement warped from the intensity of the heat, while nearby canal benches caught fire! Even the surrounding village shops had started to burn, as innocent civilians fled from the amounting wreckage on fire or in blackened clothing and burnt skin!
I gasped, overwhelmed by the horror! Their piercing screams and cries for help shot right through my heart, and I doubled over, resisting the urge to cry for them! Past images of Vincent Kuhlbert’s burned down house flooded my mind, and I relived the ruined remains I’d seen from this morning. It was like I was living through the same nightmare that he went through, only it was even worse than I had previously imagined it could ever be!
“Leave!” ordered Private Keyne to nearby civilians, “As a Praetorian, I order all civilians to leave this area immediately! It is no longer safe!”
Private Keyne then looked at me, and I knew from his expression that his recent plea included me too. I nodded quickly, to show that I understood his order, and then, I ran! The parking lot wasn’t too far away from where I’d been. I knew I was moments away from escaping this catastrophe, along with the rest of the Unevo-lved citizens, when the unthinkable happened.
“No!” screamed Private Pyrrhos desperately, “Don’t leave, please! Someone! Helpme!”
I guess I hadn’t realized how close I was to Private Pyrrhos, but it wouldn’t be long before I found out! My left arm was unexpectedly seized by what could only be described as a hellfire grip! I screamed, the searing pain of hot flame making its blistering mark onto my skin, and I was pulled back by an enlarged, ashen gray hand!
“Private Keyne!” I screeched, “Help!”
A blast of angular air blew past me, nearly missing my head! From the force at which it was delivered, I felt lucky to have been spared a direct hit! It undoubtedly would have knocked my head clean off!
More powerful wind assailed Private Pyrrhos behind me! The collision of wind and fire scalded the back of my neck and singed my hair as I tried to free myself from the infernal death grip that Private Pyrrhos had on me! But I wasn’t lucky enough to break free on my own!
“Hang on, Payton!” yelled Private Keyne.
I was doing my best, but I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold out! The air pressure around me shifted, and I saw the stirrings of hot yellow and orange embers glow. Then, the ash and smoke that made up Private Pyrrhos became a whirlwind! The ashen gray hand that still held me tightened and I was pulled back, another hand seizing my waist!
“Argh!” I screamed.
I wasn’t sure what hurt more! The torrent of fire and smoke that revolved around me in the spiraling winds, which made it difficult to breathe again, or the grip on me that Private Pyrrhos had, which threatened to burn me alive! In a last minute attempt to survive this, I did the only sensical thing I could think of! I used my Evo, and with an endothermic reaction, similar to the one I’d used on Elie, I shielded myself from the heat by covering myself in a layer of frost and ice!
The cool air settled some of the flying debris around me, which naturally rose from the heat, and I was able to see Private Pyrrhos’ Evo-lved form for the first time since he lost control! He had quadrupled in size with the swirling winds, and his ashen gray skin had broken apart to reveal veins that flowed with red-orange magma! The magma caught fire easily on the wind, creating an extra layer of projected soot and falling ash around us so that it reminded me of an erupting volcano! I watched, in silent horror, realizing just how powerful Private Pyrrhos’ Evo was, and how, if he wasn’t stopped, my hometown would be destroyed!
Then, as if he had heard my thoughts, Private Pyrrhos’ fragile skin burst open and lava gushed out! The expelled heat dispelled Private Keyne’s winds, and unable to recover fast enough, I watched as Private Keyne fell to the ground in front of his old comrade, leaving me and the rest of the village at the mercy of the fallen Praetorian!
With nothing holding Private Pyrrhos back, the thick, ash-strewn air blanketed the rest of the once sunny afternoon. Shades of grey covered what remained of the red-brick canal path and accompanying green benches, while red-orange magma oozed slowly from the base of Private Pyrrhos. It incinerated everything in its path as it hardened into black, molten rock! Below, people’s screams were silenced, as if they had suddenly perished with the reaper of death himself.
“No!” I yelled, “Stop this!”
I attempted to expand my endothermic reaction to the ground below, in the hopes of protecting anyone who remained below me! But I was jerked back towards Private Pyrrhos, his hand squeezing me so tight that I thought he’d crush my lungs well before the volcanic ash and toxic fumes had a chance to catch up with me.
“Ice?” beseeched Private Pyrrhos, “Yes, of course! You, you can save me, can’t you girl!?”
I didn’t reply, but even if I wanted to, I doubted I could in my current condition. Instead, I glanced at Private Pyrrhos, fear stricken and desperate!
“Do it! Use your Evo, and save me!” demanded Private Pyrrhos.
His grip tightened even more around my waist, and I cried out! It was all I could do just to increase the endothermic reaction I was using to reinforce the ice between me and Private Pyrrhos! How could I possibly hope to save the fallen Praetorian too!?
A familiar voice drifted in from somewhere below me, catching my attention. It couldn’t be, could it? My heart skipped a beat, and I tried to see through the amounting ash and smoke around me. I couldn’t see anyone, though, but I was sure it was him. It had to be! And as if he was answering my silent plea, I caught a glimpse of something that resembled glowing embers, and a second later, fire erupted on the surface of my friend’s skin below me!
“Let Payton go!” bellowed Kai.
Tears welled at the base of my eyes, blurring my vision temporarily before they evaporated from the heat. I’d never been so glad to see Kai before. He was alive, and that was all that mattered to me. But the fact that he was here now meant that he had other intentions, and I watched as he charged the now fifty-foot Praetorian that held me captive. He struck with the extent of his fire power, but against an Evo that wielded the power of a volcano, Kai did very little in the way of damage.
“Get out of here, Kai!” I urged, “Save yourself!”
“Go away, boy!” demanded Private Pyrrhos, “Listen to you friend! You can’t save her, and you’ll only get hurt trying!”
“NO!” yelled Kai desperately, “Payton, I’m not going to leave without you!”
Our eyes locked for a moment, and I knew. Kai wasn’t going to change his mind.
“I’ll be fine,” continued Kai, “Remember, I wouldn’t have this fire power if I couldn’t handle a little bit of heat.”
That’s right. Of course Kai would have a fighting edge in this case. His Evo allowed him to create and control fire, even as hot as 3,000ºC. That was even hotter than most lava and magma. I stared at him, awed to witness him in the height of his Evo-lved form. White hot flame erupted in the palms of his hands, as he prepared to attack, and I felt Private Pyrrhos hesitate.
“Just what are you, boy?” asked Private Pyrrhos.
“The descendant of Prometheus,” answered Kai confidently, “So, I don’t exactly shy away from anything in the realm of fire!”
A deep rumbling from within Private Pyrrhos echoed his displeasure, and I tried to brace myself for what the Praetorian would do next.
“Then, let’s see how a descendant of Prometheus fairs against a son of Pele,” growled Private Pyrrhos.
Pele? As in the ancient goddess Pele of volcanoes and fire? If that was the case, then Private Pyrrhos really was a gifted Evo-lved citizen, and I glanced back at Kai, scared that there was no way he could go up against someone like Private Pyrrhos in the height of his Evo-lved form!
Confirming my fear, Private Pyrrhos erupted! Fresh lava flowed from his veins to the base of his enormous form, and thick black smoke spewed from his head and accompanying limbs. Even worse, though, were the chunks of recently formed molten rock that blew apart and rained down around Kai, barely missing him!
“Kai! Get out of here!” I pleaded.
Despite his ability to survive the intense heat and to fight like fire, I knew that Kai was out of his element when it came to flying debris! I used a series of chemical reactions to try to free myself so that I could save him! Explosions erupted beneath my fingertips, blasting away chunks of my captor’s cracked, slate-like hands! Private Pyrrhos cried out from the sudden attack, but his grasp around my waist did not budge!
Below me, I saw Kai duck from the onslaught of blazing molten rock. He tried to use his fire as a shield, which worked well for some of the smaller pieces of blasted rock, but for the larger ones, it did nothing to protect him. Then, my worst fear was realized, and I helplessly watched as Kai was struck by a pumice that was nearly as wide as he was tall!
“Argh!” cried out Kai.
He collapsed to the ground as the pumice rock broke over him, shattering into nothing more than dust and debris!
“Kai!” I screeched, “NO, STOP THIS!”
Fear clutched my heart when Kai didn’t move right away, but then slowly, he started to pull himself back to his feet.
“Payton,” muttered Kai, “I-I’m not leaving without you.”
Kai faced Private Pyrrhos again, and I watched, bewildered and terrified!
“Get back, Kai,” interrupted Private Keyne, “This is no place for a child.”
I could see Kai attempt to rebuff the private, but instead, Private Keyne turned to his old comrade, demanding that this all come to end.
“This needs to stop, Keahi!” exclaimed Private Keyne, “You’re hurting people!”
“No, Wyndham!” pleaded Private Pyrrhos in a raspy, deep voice, “I-I need help! I’m not doing this on purpose! And this girl, she’s the answer! I won’t let anyone take her away from me!”
From where I was, I could see Private Keyne readying himself into a worthy battle stance. His golden-brown hair whipped around his face as he activated his Evo, while his handsome face twisted into obvious regret as he reluctantly faced his old comrade.
The atmospheric pressure around me shifted again, and a tingling sensation shot up my back. Warily, I glanced skyward, but all I could see was the black ash and soot from Private Pyrrhos’ Evo-lved form. Then, a massive downdraft swept over me! The wind speeds flattened me to Private Pyrrhos’ hand, making it impossible for me to move, and Private Pyrrhos roared as his magma solidified into stiff molten rock!
“Do something!” hissed Private Pyrrhos to me, “Save me!”
“Hang on, Payton!” yelled Private Keyne.
Another strong gust of wind hit me, and I gasped, feeling as if I’d run into a brick wall at 60 mile per hour speeds! However, the molten rock that Private Pyrrhos had become shattered, and his grip around my waist dissolved!
The next thing I knew was that I was tumbling into a windy vortex! I screamed and tried to catch my bearings, but the still persistent veil of ash and smoke made it hard for me to know where I was! Then, out of nowhere, Private Keyne appeared beside me in midair, and he caught me!
“No! Wyndham, stop!” bellowed Private Pyrrhos, as more of him disintegrated into the strong air currents.
His deep voice shook the world as I landed on the ground with Private Keyne a second later, and I glanced back at Private Pyrrhos, witnessing what I assumed would be his last moments.
“Bring her back! I needher! She’s the answer, only
she can save me!” insisted Private Pyrrhos desperately.
Private Keyne did not look at his comrade as he escorted me over to where Kai was, and a second later, my best friend embraced me.
“Payton! Oh, thank goodness!” expressed Kai relieved.
I felt the same way about him, and I held onto Kai tightly, so grateful that he was okay.
“Go,” commanded Private Keyne, “You must get to safety now.”
I looked over my shoulder to where Private Pyrrhos was slowly starting to regroup. The quickly cooled pumice that had encased him broke apart, and new magma was gushing forward as it reformed his fragmented form. It was only a matter of time before he’d be back at full strength, and with the urging of Kai pulling at my hand, I fled the area.
“NO!!” bellowed Private Pyrrhos.
Overhead, a dozen or so helicopters could be heard surrounding the area that Private Pyrrhos inhabited, and a familiar voice echoed through the loudspeakers of my small hometown.
“This is the Praetorian guard!” notified Officer Allen, “To all remaining citizens, remove yourselves from the surrounding premises immediately! I repeat, remove yourselves from the surrounding premises immediately! The Praetorian guard will commence rescue operations at once!”
I hesitated, glancing back at where the Praetorian guard was gathering. I knew what they were going to do to that poor man, and my heart ached, knowing there was nothing that anyone could do to save him. Not even me.
“Payton!” yelled Kai.
He grabbed my shoulders and redirected me to the parking lot we were approaching.
“We can’t stop!” insisted Kai, “It’s too dangerous to stay here!”
“Ca-can’t we help him!?” I asked Kai desperately, “I mean, maybe he’s right! What if I can save him?”
“No,” replied Kai, “You can’t, Payton. I know this is hard, but we have to leave him for the Praetorian guard to deal with!”
“But I’m…! I mean, my lineage! Kai, I could - ,” I started.
“Not even with your lineage, Payton,” interrupted Kai sharply, “Don’t put that responsibility on your shoulders!”
From behind us, I heard the sound of approaching Praetorian guards as they engaged Private Pyrrhos, and then, the ground rumbled and shook! I temporarily lost my footing with Kai, and we fell over each other as a couple of fireballs crash landed next to us! Without thinking twice, I grabbed Kai’s hand and pulled him forward, dodging blasts of molten rock and fire that now rained down over us. Private Pyrrhos had clearly just gained the upper hand again, and all I could think was that there was no way we were going to make it through this alive!
I obeyed the command without question and pulled Kai to the ground with me. The sound of something breaking apart alerted me to the danger Kai and I had narrowly escaped, and flickering debris fell over us like quiet embers escaping a fireplace. When I looked up, it was to see a boy my age with his hands raised towards the range of fireballs Kai and I had somehow made it through, and I realized with a bit of a jolt that it was none other than - !
“Gideon?” I observed out loud.
Gideon lowered his hands and his gaze. He met my eyes with a scornful expression. Around him, the air was still and I realized how much easier it was to breathe. The ash fell like grey snow on the ground, and the heat had also subsided significantly.
“Thanks, man,” expressed Kai gratefully.
Gideon’s narrowed gaze fell onto Kai, as my friend helped me up, and I questioned why Gideon would go out of his way to help us. Clearly, he still seemed to resent us, and without uttering another word, Gideon walked away.
“Hey, wait!” I yelled after him, “How did you - ?”
“It’s my Evo, okay?” spat Gideon.
I had never seen his Evo in action before, and as a result, I was inundated with a million questions. How did his Evo work? What was his lineage? Or maybe he didn’t know, since he was adopted. Either way, did he know the extent to which he could use his Evo? Or was he still learning to harness it?
I had to resist bombarding him with my desire to know more, and next to me, Kai must’ve sensed my insatiable thirst for knowledge. He squeezed my hand and smirked at me, as if to say, “hold your horses, Payton.” I did, but only because I noticed a small child nearby, who was clinging to the outline of a woman that had recently been incinerated into charred bones and dust.
I felt as if the wind had been knocked right out of me, and a second later, I reeled on my feet so fast that Kai had to catch me. It was all I could do to keep myself from throwing up, and a surge of deep emotion got the best of me. I choked and gasped to catch my breath, trying to compose myself, but my body shivered from the sight, reminding me of the horrific reality we were faced with.
“Payton?” asked Kai, “You okay?”
I nodded and composed myself as best I could. By the time I turned around again, Gideon had picked up the girl and was in the process of reassuring her. Her blonde pigtails were coming undone, and she screamed, clearly not liking that she was being separated from her mother. Gideon, however, turned away, his expression grim, when I noticed the falling gray ash turn black.
“Payton Daelyn! Help me!” cried Private Pyrrhos behind us.
I turned to the suffering Praetorian private and witnessed the impossible! Private Pyrrhos had morphed into a thirty-foot wall of hot lava, and Private Keyne was nowhere in sight! I prepared myself for the worst, flipping through pages of chemical reactions I’d memorized to see if there was something I could use to protect me and my friends. Nothing came to mind, though. The sheer panic of the moment seized me instead, and the gears in my mind stopped turning, while, near to where I stood, Private Pyrrhos re-solidified into half molten rock and smoke.
The hot, volcanic atmosphere caught up with him, and my vision blurred from the onset of the extreme conditions! If it was possible, I was pretty sure Private Pyrrhos had gotten even bigger, and this time, his red eyes searched me desperately as the shadow of a large hand threatened to engulf me once more!
Kai reacted quickly, pushing me out of the way, while he prepared to attack with his own fire power. Gideon, however, wasn’t so lucky. I watched helplessly as my classmate was swallowed by the inferno that Private Pyrrhos had generated in his Evo-lved state! I screamed, horrified by the spectacle, when, unexpectedly, Private Pyrrhos’ hand suddenly bulged.
The swelling bubble of black molten rock and bright red-orange magma grew, before it suddenly blew apart! Private Pyrrhos howled, seizing his broken hand with his intact one, while more of the volcanic titan cracked and broke open! The red-orange magma that was the Praetorian’s Evo-lved form gushed over his shattered remains, temporarily stopping him in his tracks, while Gideon stood below the corrupted private with the little girl he was protecting still in his grasp.
“That should teach you not to use your Evo on innocent bystanders,” remarked Gideon unkindly.
I could hardly believe what I had just witnessed. How was Gideon still alive? The environment that Private Pyrrhos created should’ve killed him, but instead, he stood beside the suffering private, unwaveringly confident in his victory. It was almost eerie, like Gideon was somehow complacent with what he had just done and like he knew that there wasn’t much that could hurt him. Was this why Officer Allen wanted to keep an eye on him?
Slightly disoriented by what I had just witnessed, I quickly and carefully approached Kai to insist that we keep moving. Just like me, however, Kai appeared mesmerized by what Gideon had done, and it took a couple of hard tugs to get him to move.
“Wh-what was that?” asked Kai unsettled.
I didn’t reply, not wanting to judge Gideon for his Evo-lved ability the way I was often judged for mine. After all, this was an extreme situation that demanded extreme actions to stay alive. Still, Gideon seemed to be aware of what he had done, and he approached me and Kai slowly and skeptically, as if he were waiting for us to flee from his very presence.
“You all right?” I asked him.
Gideon nodded curtly. The little girl in his arms wailed and cried loudly, as she clung to him, and I was happy to see she was not hurt.
“Okay, then,” I suggested, “Let’s go.”
In the settling hot, ashen air, I spotted something solid and dark grey approach us. Once it got closer, I saw that it had the rough outline of a human, but that it was made entirely of rock. It resembled a very well-carved statue and wore a Praetorian uniform that complimented a pair of familiar, sharp blue eyes.
“Officer Allen?” I asked, surprised.
“Yes,” replied Officer Allen, “It’s me.”
Officer Allen glanced around us, but quickly returned her attention to me.
“Is this everyone?” asked Officer Allen.
“Yes,” I informed Officer Allen quickly.
“And Private Keyne?” asked the officer anxiously.
“I-I don’t know,” I admitted.
“All right,” acknowledged Officer Allen, “The rest of the Praetorian guard has set up a blockade around the area, and they are escorting Unevo-lved citizens to safety. I’m here to escort any victims close to the source of our problem. Where is Private Pyrrhos now?”
“Just a little ways behind us,” I replied, “But he’s….”
I stopped myself from saying anymore, recalling how Officer Allen had mentioned that she was keeping an eye on Gideon for his Evo. Was it okay for me to say more about how the private had been temporarily incapacitated?
“You should get out of here quickly then,” insisted Officer Allen, “Follow me. You too, Mr. Atwell. Bring the child with you.”
Officer Allen led the way, and for a while, I thought that we might just make it out without any more interference from Private Pyrrhos. We hurried through the rest of the now ghostlike village. It was eerie and quiet, with haunting shadows outlined on the streets or against buildings of where people had crumbled into ash and dust. Occasionally, mangled bones and skeletons could be seen as well, or even worse, the ashen corpses of those who’d suffocated before they had a chance to get themselves to safety.
The ghastly sights stirred my insides, and I felt nauseous and hollow. How could something this horrible have happened? Was my family okay? How far had the damage spread? These questions inundated my mind, and I tried not to panic. However, the echoes of fighting Praetorian guards caught up with us, and soon, the air began to vibrate from a heated blaze against our backs. Private Pyrrhos was catching up to us.
I turned, just in time to see two long arms made of molten lava rock pulling the upper torso of a giant man. They solidified and broke, spewing red-orange magma that flowed forward before reforming again. The closer it got, the more mass it accumulated, until the upper half of Private Pyrrhos towered over us again.
His ashen-gray skin was cracked with the same fiery inferno as before. Black smoke rose off of his head and out of his nostrils, almost like he was some kind of fire-breathing dragon, and his red eyes flickered fearfully, as he searched for his one remaining hope - me.
“Don’t do this, Officer Allen!” cried Private Pyrrhos, “I-I need the girl! Please! She’ll save me!”
A fire blast soared over our heads with his demand, and then, the wind picked up. From behind Private Pyrrhos, a tightly-wound funnel pierced the head of the lava giant and broke the skull clean open! Private Pyrrhos wailed as lava spewed from his head, and Private Keyne landed on the other side of his comrade by us, alive but not unharmed.
“Go!” demanded Private Keyne, “I’ll deal with him!”
Private Keyne’s hair was singed and dirty, and he was covered in bad burns. His Praetorian uniform was peppered with smoking holes, and I noticed that his left arm was bleeding rather severely from embedded debris.
“Private Keyne, I will send reinforcements!” notified Officer Allen, “Don’t you dare die on us until then!”
I hesitated, seeing the condition that Private Keyne was in. Flashbacks to all of the others who’d also died seized me, and I froze.
This was all my fault. Private Pyrrhos was so desperate to be saved by me that he was clearly willing to keep going until I offered him the help that he demanded. Whether intentional or not, his Evo-lved form threatened the lives of everyone around him and he was no longer in control of just how out-of-hand it got. That left me with only one choice. I had to find a way to save him, or else the price of the wreckage would be too much for me to bear!
“Payton!” yelled Kai.
He tugged at me, but I didn’t move. Another fireball flew towards us, and instead of running the other way, I ran forward to stop it! Officer Allen must’ve predicted what I was going to do, or maybe she was just faster! Either way, she threw herself into the attack to protect me! Her Evo-lved form smouldered and cracked from receiving the blazing rock, but she wasn’t harmed.
“This is not your responsibility, Ms. Daelyn,” insisted Officer Allen, “GO! You must not let our efforts be in vain to protect you!”
I couldn’t just flee like this. It felt cowardly, and I didn’t see how anyone could restrain the raw power that Private Pyrrhos had. But maybe, just maybe, I could.
“Payton Daelyn!” roared Private Pyrrhos.
Ahead of me, Private Keyne whipped his old comrade with repeated lashings of wind that cooled and half-disintegrated the volcanic giant. But regardless of his repeated efforts, Private Pyrrhos would simply reform, so that this time an elongated hand stretched out to take me for good.
“So,” challenged Kai to my right, “You want to play with fire, huh? I’ll take you up on that.”
Kai’s skin turned an orange-red and glowed like hot embers, while fire licked the surface of his skin. I went to stop him, knowing what he was going to do, but before I could, Kai gave me a quick, reassuring smile.
“You haveto keep going, Payton,” conveyed Kai, “The world needs you. Your Evo is too important to be sacrificed here. Besides, there’s no way that I’m going to stand by and do nothing when you’re in danger. I will protect you.”
His hands slipped through mine, and I watched him, stunned and silent, as he engaged Private Pyrrhos!
“Kai,” I muttered quietly.
Private Pyrrhos seized Kai easily, his magma engulfing my dearest friend. I screamed, but my voice was lost in the combination of wind and erupting lava! But Kai’s Evo ignited from within Private Pyrrhos’ fiery grip, and Kai emerged enveloped within his own blue-white flames as the hot molten substance empowered him.
“Kai!” I yelled again, “Stop! What are you thinking, you idiot!? Don’t do this!”
Officer Allen held me back, while Private Keyne attempted to aid Kai with his own Evo. Fireballs soared within inches of where we all were, and I could hear the panicked screams of innocent bystanders outside of the secured perimeter. It frightened me, and I glanced around the area, overwhelmed by the hellish view of my crumbling hometown.
Ahead of us, I saw Kai incinerate Private Pyrrhos beyond what the Praetorian could do to regenerate himself. It was an incredible display of Evo-lved power, but one that did not come with consequences.
The ground rumbled and cracked. I fell over with Officer Allen, while beside us, I saw Gideon shield the child he’d rescued as the girl screamed in his arms. The Earth beneath us rumbled and lava spewed from the crevice, showering everyone with its fiery contents!
This was Private Pyrrhos’ last attempt, and the hot pavement I was on gave way. I started to fall, the magma beneath me threatening to swallow me whole! With one last desperate attempt, I stretched one of my hands above me in the hopes of saving myself from plummeting to my death! And that’s when I saw Kai running towards me. He pulled me from the immediate vicinity, throwing me onto the rough, uneven pavement above the creviced road. But by the time I looked back at him, it was to see him consumed by the shifting Earth that should’ve taken me, and he gazed back into my eyes, desperate and afraid.
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